Do you know what they said to me one time when I was waiting for you? One of the doctors said, “Think of a balloon with many dots drawn on its surface. Now inflate the balloon. The dots aren’t moving away from each other, are they? Their world is just expanding.” His voice was flat coming out of one of those metal boxes they wear around their necks, and I swear, Charlotte, if you hadn’t come out right then with that smile on your face, I would have hit him right there. For his flat face and flat voice and the way he spoke like he was reading everything out of some book on comforting the bereaved.
They want me to leave. Your doctor keeps telling me that you can’t hear me. You’re too deeply asleep now—like a “caterpillar in a chrysalis, waiting to become a butterfly,” he says. I don’t really care. I need to tell you a story. Our story. The story of Jonathon and Charlotte Callahan and how everything changed.
I guess it must have started while I was on the train home from work, watching out the window as the city bled into the country—skyscrapers becoming high rises becoming apartments becoming houses becoming homes. I was thinking about you, anticipating a meeting that had occurred so often that I felt as though I could see the future play out before my open eyes.
You worked at home and so you’d would be there waiting for me. You’d have gotten takeout, probably Chinese, since neither of us can cook. When I got home, you’d be standing in the kitchen by the table, reaching into the brown paper bag. The air would smell like fried rice and mushu pork.
You’d hear my footsteps and turn around and a sunbeam from the window would strike your hair. I remember that hair, each strand illuminated in a different shade of red or gold. And then the light would pour over your face, making a triangle of white that left the other half of your face in shadow. You’d smile then, your real smile, the one you saved just for me. The one where you could see the gap between your front teeth, which you always hated and which I thought was cute.
I knew your jeans would be ripped at the knee and spattered with paint and you’d still be wearing your smock over your shirt. You’d have purple paint under your fingernails and a smudge of green across your nose. You’d run up to me and we’d kiss and somehow, as always, you would manage to get a nose print on my glasses. I smiled as I walked toward the door of the train car, thinking of you. The next stop was mine.
I walked up the path to our house, admiring the pink and red tulips along the front. Remember when I asked you how you managed to get them to come up in exactly the same spots every year? You looked at me with your mouth open, amazed as always by the small ignorances left over from my childhood in the city. “They’re the same tulips every time,” you’d said. “They don’t die. They just hibernate for the winter, like bears.”
I fiddled with my key ring until I found the one for the front door and after taking a moment for the lock, I stepped through the door.
“Honey, I’m home!” I called, but got no answer.
I tried again, louder, figuring you were lost in one of your paintings. It was the second most likely thing to find when I came home. Maybe you’d finally gotten around to calling Liz at the gallery and setting up a show. Last time you saw her you didn’t come home until three in the morning and you must have ridden the train the whole way with red paint dried up to your elbows. Everyone on the train must have thought you were a murderer, but that painting with all the red and the flowers like women’s lips and long, long hair, Liz sold it for enough to buy us a second honeymoon.
I tried calling again. Still no answer. It had been almost a year since you’d last been to see Liz. You wouldn’t even go out for dinner with me anymore—not even House of Chen.
“Honey?” I spoke more quietly now, worried. The air did not hold even a hint of fried rice.
I walked toward the kitchen, where I heard your voice speaking softly. For a moment I thought it might have been a friend, that you might be feeling better, but you slammed the receiver down as I came around the corner. You hit the cradle a bit too hard so the phone, cradle and all, fell to the floor. We both jumped to pick it up, limbs tangling.
“Charlotte, who was it?” My voice was so soft you almost didn’t hear me.
You looked away. “A doctor.”
I waited a moment for you to organize your thoughts, and then coughed.
“One of the Others.”
I sat down hard enough to rattle the plates in the cupboard.
You bit your lip, worrying it between your front teeth, the way you always did when you were scared. So, I reached out and turned your head so that you faced me. Your eyes seemed to waver, like they were deep underwater, before you began to cry. You bit your lip to keep the sobs silent as they shook you and I folded you close against my chest. Your face must have chafed against the buttons of my shirt, but you only clung tighter, as if the small pain would bring us closer.
I held you tightly then, sitting on the linoleum floor of the kitchen, just out of reach of the pink sunset light coming in from the window. We rocked gently back and forth together, paint and tears and snot rubbing off on the front of my nice shirt. We stayed like this until our knees hurt and then even longer. There was a thin film of ice between us now, and if we moved it would crack.
Finally, you shook yourself off, running your hand roughly over your eyes and pulling your hair back out of your face. You rose and I followed, my eyes refusing to leave yours.
We stood silent for a moment as the sun lowered its final sliver behind the mountains and the only light left came from the florescent bulbs above our heads. Finally you spoke.
“John, will you come to see the doctor with me?”
I nodded once, slowly.
“Um,” you said, and you shook yourself all over and then began again, smiling slightly,
“Um…I didn’t get a chance to grab takeout tonight.”
“I can try to cook.”
“I’ll be ready with 911 in case the house burns down.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be careful.”
You whispered the same words a moment after, almost too quietly for me to hear.
I went with you to see the doctor the next day. I had expected to wait, but a man—a human man—escorted us in to the doctor’s office immediately. I hadn’t expected the doctor to be so small behind his mountain of a metal desk. His eyes glittered darkly, stars in the sky of a distant world.
The metal box on his desk spoke, metallic and flat. You jumped forward, startled, your eyes hungry. It was all I could do to keep my hold on your elbow, feeling you drawn to the doctor the way iron filings are drawn to a magnet.
“Welcome, Mr. and Mrs. Callahan. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. Now, Charlotte—may I call you Charlotte?—tell me what exactly brings you here to me today.”
I flinched. The voice was a monotone, but a human monotone, and the words were ordinary, unaccented English. The doctor did not move at all as the box spoke, so I had no way of telling if the doctor spoke to us now, or if this was something recorded before and merely playing for us. All I could think of was the hunger in your eyes and the way the doctor looked at you. Soon it was your hand holding me back, even as you spoke to the Other behind the desk.
“I guess I’ve always felt wrong. Like my body didn’t fit me, like it was a prison to escape. I’ve never felt human. I’ve never wanted to be a human. I want to be like you.”
There were tears standing in your eyes and my grip loosened on your arm. You had never said anything like this to me in all the nights we’d rested body against body in the warm dark, in all the times I had imagined our two bodies and two minds had become one.
The doctor ignored me. His two enormous eyes turned to face you and you alone. “Do you know what this means? Do you know what you will have to undergo?”
“I do.” It was spoken like a wedding vow, and I released my hand from your arm. For a moment you were not my wife.
Desperate, I spoke the first words that came to my mind. “Would we still be able to have children?”
“Well, we’ve always wanted kids…”
But you turned to look at me with your eyebrows drawn together and my voice dried up before it even reached my mouth. I never could refuse you anything. I just wanted you to be happy, I told myself. You were just changing. It wasn’t like you were leaving me. Not really. It wasn’t like you were asking me to change.
You spoke with the doctor for a long time, quietly. I didn’t try to listen. My mind was elsewhere and I wished it could take my body with it. All the while I reflexively tried to hold you tightly to me. My body struggling to keep you with me.
All I could think of was the way you looked at him. The hunger. You made it easy, I guess. I didn’t have to ask myself “What can he give her that I can’t?” I knew. I could give you, I don’t know, a house with flower beds in front and an oak tree out back that we never had the heart to carve our initials into. And he could give you all the things you ever dreamed of and never told me. If he’d been another man, I could have tried to prove myself to you. I could have composed terrible sonnets and read them under your window. I could have punched him in the face.
It should have been easier knowing that it wasn’t something I did. But it just made it worse.
Standing there, I remembered reading in the paper that there still weren’t any laws set up regulating the operation. It took me like a punch to the gut. There would be no waiting around to have your application approved. There would be no psychiatrist trying to talk you out of it. There would be no time for me to convince you to come back. I clung to the knowledge that sometimes the Others turned people away people, that they knew somehow that it wasn’t right. But, the terrible feeling in my stomach told me, if they were going to reject you, they already would have.
Faster than I thought possible, the papers were in front of us. I don’t know where I got the strength to stand there and watch you sign the papers, your name next to every little “x.” And, Charlotte, I don’t know how I stood by and watched what came next.
The human assistant brought in the first of many needles. It was shiny metal and glowed like a rocket ship burning up on reentry to Earth’s atmosphere. The doctor wrapped too many fingers around your upper arm, the left one, the one I wasn’t holding. I watched the needle penetrate your skin, saw how you jerked away and how the doctor pulled you closer. I watched how he pushed the plunger in, slowly, almost lovingly. I heard the soft, pained cries in the back of your throat and felt your hand tighten painfully on mine. Your fingernails left a row of five little white marks along the side of my palm.
I wanted to scream, “Stop! Can’t you see you’re hurting her?” I wanted to take you away from this terrible place with its glowing white walls, its cold metal chairs, and its doctors with black-hole eyes. I wanted to take you home, safe and unchanged, to hide you from everything bad in the world. I wanted to go back in time two days and pour amber over us as we slept that night, together, when the world was still the way it was supposed to be. But I loved you, so I stayed.
We rode the train home in silence; my arm the only thing holding you up. When we arrived at home, I carried you inside and up the stairs and laid you gently down on the bed we had shared for almost three years. You slept with your eyes open, pupil and iris rolling like blue marbles. Your face was slack, without the purse-lipped concentration of your normal sleep, and your sweat was hot and sticky to the touch. It formed a fine blue-grey film over my hand which I had to rinse again and again to remove. Something vital, I couldn’t help but think, was leaking out of you onto me and now spiraling with the tap water down the drain.
I woke the next morning to the sound of running water from the bathroom. You’d gotten up before me, as you always did on weekends, and were taking a shower. I stood up and walked to the bathroom, thinking that if I caught you before you were done, you would probably let me wash you. I’d first seen you naked a little over four years ago, but the novelty of your body under my hands had never worn off. I got all the way to the closed door of the bathroom before noticing the fake-lemon smell of the shower cleaner. Then I remembered the night before and the sticky not-sweat I had washed down the drain. You were scrubbing the bathtub, getting rid of the evidence of your change so that I wouldn’t have to see it. I imagined you then, down on your knees, scrubbing pieces of yourself off the bathtub. The blue-grey liquid going down the drain.
When you finally emerged from the bathroom, you looked unchanged. Perhaps a bit thinner, like after a fever, and tired around the eyes, but still my Charlotte. You were smiling your real smile and whistling through the gap in your teeth. Your hair was wrapped up in a turban made from your white fluffy towel, leaving the rest of you bare and still slightly wet. You pulled a corner of the towel over your mouth and arched your eyebrows in a manner you always thought made you look exotic.
“I come from darkest Arabia,” you intoned, trying unsuccessfully to stifle giggles. “I have come from the seraglio of dessert sheikhs to give you what all men dream of, a peek beneath my veil.”
“Oh, Desert Rose, whose beauty shall outlast even the fire of the sun, grant me my desire. A single kiss.”
“Really, just one kiss?” You said, pulling the towel from your head. “I’m disappointed.”
“Well, maybe more than one kiss. How’s two sound to you?”
You laughed and kissed me and started pulling the shirt off over my head, somehow managing to make a confusion of my neck and elbows that I had to untangle before you could lead me to the bed.
Afterward, I lay beside you, one hand tucked under the pillow beneath your head. I turned my head to the right to look out the window at the elm tree in the backyard and the neighbor’s kids playing on the other side of the fence. I looked left at you, my beautiful wife, lying naked next to me, the panes of glass in the window forming squares of light to frame your breasts and the drying curls of your hair. You moved closer then whispering softly in my ear, “I have a surprise for you.”
You held out your left hand, stroking with your right the hard bud beneath the skin where a sixth finger had begun to grow. I got up from bed without a word and walked downstairs. My mind was empty as I filled the kettle and took out the packets of instant oatmeal for breakfast.
You came downstairs while I was adding raisins and cinnamon to the oatmeal. I slid the finished bowl across the table to you without looking up to where it skidded to a stop halfway between us. Neither of us reached for it. I thought about the oatmeal cooling and clamped down on something hot and white scrabbling against my solar plexus. I dug my fingers into my palms, but my nails were short and they left no marks. You waited a moment for me to get the spoons and then, when the silence became to unbearably loud, you spoke.
“You’re angry.” Not a challenge, a statement of fact.
“No, I’m not. You just surprised me is all.”
“Why are you doing this?” I still couldn’t look at you.
“Why can’t you just get angry like a normal person and hit me or something!” I could see your shoulders shaking out of the corner of my eye and I wanted more than anything to go to you and put my arms around you, but I was afraid if I got any closer I really would hit you. I took a deep breath instead.
” Just please tell me why you’re doing this.” I looked up.
“I thought you knew.”
“How the hell would I know?” I was standing now. You stepped back, as if you had forgotten how tall I was, how tall I could be when I was angry.
“You know I’ve never felt normal. You know I’ve never felt comfortable. I look down at myself in the shower and I see the thing attached to me, this ugly thing, and it’s my body. It makes me want to cry. I hate it. It isn’t me. I don’t want to be this anymore.”
“You never said anything. What about this morning, coming out of the shower…” I couldn’t move my mouth.
“I was pretending, John. For you. I thought you knew. You know me better than anyone else.”
“I thought I did, too.” A pause. “Please just stop doing this. Stop with the injections. Don’t leave me.”
“This isn’t me leaving you. It doesn’t have anything to do with you—“
“I love you. Can’t that be enough? Why are you making this so hard?” My fists hit the table again, percussive punctuation.
“I don’t know!”
“You don’t know? You’re doing this thing…you’re destroying yourself and you don’t know why!”
“It’s just what I have to do. I can’t explain. I wish I could, but I can’t. This is who I am. It’s who I need to be. Things change, John. People change.”
You held out your hands in a gesture of wordless supplication, asking for an understanding that I could not give you, for words that you could not make mean anything to either of us. I looked at the strange things your hands were becoming and at the tears running down the end of your nose. I didn’t understand. I never would. I knew that. But you were my wife. I wanted it to be enough.
“Look at my hands!” I was startled by the pure joy in your voice.
Your hands were blossoming. The finger-stubs had completely ringed your palms, pushing against the soft web of your skin. As I watched, they began to bud, stretching and growing out of your hands even as another ring began to grow behind them and another behind that. Your hands looked like roses, fingers becoming soft petals drooping bonelessly outward from an unlined palm.
“Aren’t they beautiful?” You were crying again, whether out of pain or joy or some alloy of them both, I wasn’t sure.
But they were beautiful, your hands. Even I could see that. Heart-wrenchingly beautiful. I swallowed back acid and looked up to meet the ecstasy of your eyes. I held your flowering hands in my own. and I shuddered as I felt your fingers exploring mine.
You shook as I held you and I looked to see something hard moving under your skin, out from your hands. You closed your eyes from the pain, so only I saw the lumps move along your arms, into your shoulders, and up your throat –the skin around each one distending and purpling with broken blood vessels. You coughed, choking, and something white flew from your mouth, phlegm-coated and clicking softly against the tile floor. Your body jack-knifed in my arms as you coughed harder and harder and I didn’t think, just pounded you on the back until the last of it was done.
You bent over, eyes streaming, nose running, panting to catch your breath. It was only then, while I supported you with one arm that I realized what it was you had been coughing up. Shards of finger bone lay scattered on the kitchen floor, floating in a spreading pool of whitish bile and phlegm, tinted slightly pink with flecks of your blood. I looked at your hands, fingers no longer fingers, clenching rhythmically like the tentacles of an octopus, and I couldn’t help it, I threw up too.
I wiped my face off with the back of my hand and led you back upstairs. You stumbled on the steps, too exhausted to walk properly. I washed your face with a wetted corner of your towel and tucked you in under the covers. I went back downstairs, intending to clean up the kitchen, but I couldn’t even make myself enter the room. I cleaned myself up as best as I could in the bathroom sink. I didn’t want to go upstairs and use the lemon-scented shower where pieces of you had just been washed down the drain.
I’d seen one of the Others before. Before we met the Doctor, I mean. Not a finished one, someone in transition. I never told you about that, did I? I was walking from the train station to work and I saw him across the street, standing by the Seventh Avenue subway stop. He was wearing a big, yellow rain poncho, even though the sun was out, and smoking. Lots of people were walking past him; he was standing by the steps down to a subway station at 8:30 in the morning on a weekday, after all. But nobody looked at him. It was like he was encased in some kind of glass bubble, the way people moved around him, maintaining space. He didn’t seem to care, just smoking his cigarette and watching the people go by—mothers pulling children away before they could see him. His skin was the purple-gray-green color of month-old deli meat.
While I had my eyes closed, scrubbing off my face, I tried to picture you like that, standing somewhere, alone, skin shiny as rotting meat. The image of that man wouldn’t leave me alone. Every time I tried to go upstairs to check on you, I saw it again, and froze halfway up.
I barely slept at all the next night, lying in bed next to you, listening to the sandpaper sounds your breath made in your throat. In the morning, I could see the wet imprint your body left on the pillows and the covers. A sticky-gray Hiroshima shadow of my wife. You were in the bathroom when I woke up, and I could hear you singing. I knocked on the door and you shouted “come in” loud enough to force me fully awake. You sat up in the bath, lavender scented bubbles filling your belly-button and dripping down your breasts. Your shoulders looked so thin and pale in the harsh light of the bathroom. Your spine lay too near the surface, like barbed wire under your skin. I could smell something chemical under the scent of lavender, like burning fingernails.
I shook my head. Yes, you’d lost some weight. But you were still so beautiful. I could see drops of water sparkling along the tops of your breasts. You patted the water next to you, making a splash as you invited me to join you. Then you slid under the water again, just your head remaining above water to rest awkwardly against the spigot.
I took off my pajamas as quickly as I could and jumped in with you, making the water rise almost to the level of the lip of the tub. Your hands were below the water and you looked like my wife, my Charlotte. I kissed you and you kissed me and rolled me on top of you, splashing water everywhere. I could feel you rise up under me, hipbones lying just above mine, nipples rubbing against my chest. I cupped my hands around the back of your head to keep you from hitting it against the back of the tub as you pulled me underwater. We made love, falling beneath the surface of the water with every thrust and rising to the surface as I pulled away from you.
There was nothing between us but skin and even that was a fragile membrane, thin enough for our breath to pass back and forth. As I pressed myself into you again, I felt your hands reach to clasp behind my back. I could feel your soft, boneless fingers rubbing along my spine. It was like my back was on fire, every nerve straining to feel, to make sense of what I felt. In my mind, over and over again, I saw them change. Your beautiful fingers becoming petals, becoming writhing worms, blind without the whorls of your fingerprints. Blind worms sprouting from your delicate wrists, crawling across my back. I let go of your head, feeling it thud against the side of the tub. I grabbed your shoulders, pulling us both under the water. Your head slid under the water and hit against the bottom. Your eyes were open, staring wildly at me, scared . The worms of your fingers struggled against my back. I thrust into you harder now, neither of us able to breathe. I felt the bubbles of air I forced from your lips move past my face, popping to the surface at the level of my ears.
I scratched my fingernails down your back, forcing you to pull closer to me, feeling your heart pounding against mine. I moved faster then, thrusting violently, all concern for you gone in a moment of animal-anger and lust. I shoved you away from me, banging your head against the hard white of the tub. You made no effort to stop me, just clung on tighter as I thrashed against you and shoved you under bashing the back of your head into the shiny spot of the drain.
I don’t know how long I kept us beneath the water. My mind had retreated to some far corner of my brain and all that was left was sensation—the burning of my lungs, the pleasure of you surrounding me, the blood-warm water. I have no excuse for what I did to you. I knew that as soon as it was over and I held you, coughing wetly against my shoulder, the anger that I hadn’t even known I had slowly draining from my cramped muscles with every panting breath. I was shaking, barely able to hold onto you, looking at the bruises my hands had made on your pale skin. Your eyes were firmly closed and as I bent to kiss them, you squirmed in my arms.
I blinked the water droplets from my eyes and looked at you. A thick white fluid clung to your eyelashes and ran down your cheeks, leaving a raw, red trail in your skin. You made a soft noise in your throat and struggled to open your eyes. Your eyelids tore vertically down the middle, spilling dark blood over your eyes. I rocked you in my lap, murmuring nonsense and trying my best to keep your eyes clean. All the while, a voice in the back of my head screamed over and over again that this was my fault, a punishment for my violence, for my anger. I thought of the boy whose nose I had broken when I was just a child—the fountain of red pouring from the crumpled nostrils and how he would always have that nose to remember me by. I hadn’t felt that metal-hot anger since, or if I had, I had kept it buried, careful to never show this to you. And now I could see your broken eyelids streaming blood, mixing with the white, viscous fluid and running pink and wet off the edge of your chin, dripping and staining the water around us.
I picked you up and carried you, draped across my arms and weighing almost nothing, to our bed. I was crying, but I hardly noticed. I knelt down beside the bed, wishing I could undo time, take back the bruises on your body, the blood. You blinked, a clear membrane covering your eyes for a second, wiping away the blood and tearing off the clinging remnants of your eyelids. The first thing I thought was that your eyes were too big, taking up most of the space in the top half of your head. And they were pure black. Black as a night without moon or stars. Black as the glass eyes of the taxidermy deer at the Museum of Natural History. Somewhere in the depths I could see a flicker of silver fire, a distant galaxy pulsing as regular as a heartbeat .
Your new eyes opened fully and looked at me for the first time. Something tasting sickly pink scrabbled at the back of my throat. I swallowed hard, tears stinging hot on my cheeks. You smiled then, your real smile, with all of your teeth showing. Your smile faded slowly, still tugging at the corner of your lips as you fell asleep, exhausted from your transformation.
At the last moment, so quiet I could barely hear, you whispered, “Thank you.” I didn’t know what you meant then. It just felt like another stone piled atop my guilt. But, I suppose I had just made it easier to do what came next. Things change, John. People change.
I spent nine to five on Monday in my office staring at the blank white wall, unblinking, until magenta streamers seemed to float in front of my eyes. Liz called—something about the three of us going out for coffee. I didn’t pick up. I came home to find you awake, sitting on the couch in a pair of oversized sunglasses with the shades drawn on all the windows. You looked frail, your shoulder blades jutting out under your sweater like the wings of some small bird. I had prepared an apology. I was going to tell you how there was no excuse for ever hurting you. How I still didn’t know what came over me. I was going to ask for forgiveness.
All I got a chance to say was, “I—“
“You don’t need to apologize.” Your voice was flat.
“You don’t need to apologize. I deserved it.”
“What are you talking about? Charlotte, you didn’t deserve, don’t deserve…”
“You’re right. I don’t deserve. People change, John. Things change. I’m not the woman you married anymore.”
I reached out to take your head in my hands, but stopped myself.
“Charlotte…please don’t, just don’t. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. There aren’t words to express how sorry I am. I never wanted to hurt you.”
“I never wanted to hurt you either, John. But, look at me. And look at you. I did this to us. I’m selfish and a liar and I’m making you crazy…”
You trailed off. Before I could react to what you’d said, your expression changed and you were the Charlotte I had fallen in love with again.
“Would you like to see what I’ve been working on?”
I shook my head to clear it. “Working on?”
“I’ve been waiting all day to show you my new painting. It’s in the studio. Come on.”
You got up and linked your arm through mine, careful not to touch me with your hands. I’d been expecting something like I’d seen before. You always said that abstract art was just for painters who never learned to draw. That semi-realistic art would come back some day and then you’d be avant garde. Remember the painting you did of me right after we got married, the one hanging in the dining room? You painted me in sea colors—blues and greens, teal, silver, deep purple. But it was still me, like looking at my refection in a murky pool. This, this was different. I could see shapes almost, and colors paired in eye-searing contrast. Brilliant yellow with muddy purple. Army green and suntan-orange. Deep blue and neon red. The colors seemed to ripple in my vision, as if, if I stared long enough, or maybe looked at it just the right way, the painting might pop into focus, like a Magic Eye, and I would understand. Instead, I felt the beginning of a headache edging its way in behind my eyes.
“I did it with my hands.”
You held up your paint smeared fingers proudly. You must have seen the expression on my face even through the darkness of your sunglasses.
“Look,” you said,“ gesturing vaguely at the space in front of a pale yellow and peptobismol-pink splotch, “Here I am.” And then gesturing off the edge of the canvas next to the green and orange patch, “And here you are.”
“It’s, well, it’s different,” I said stupidly.
“You can’t see it, can you? It’s these new eyes. Everything looks different. I can do this thing with color and suddenly I can see pictures like I’m painting them in three dimensions. It’s really beautiful. I haven’t quite got the hang of it yet, though.” You paused. “I just wish you could see it, John.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“Or maybe you don’t want to. I think I got your nose crooked. Noses are the hardest part of the face for me. Always have been.”
“The more things change, the more they stay the same?” I hadn’t meant the note of questioning to enter my voice, but you didn’t seem to notice.
“Can you take it to the gallery and show Liz? I, well, I don’t really want her to see me like this just yet.”
“She called today. She wants to see you.”
“Not now, John, please. But,” you said as you smiled, “How about I throw you for a real loop?”
“Let’s go out to eat.”
“What? You hate doing that. You never let me take you anywhere anymore.”
“Well, now I’m letting you take me to House of Chen. I want Chinese. Good Chinese, not that Golden Dragon Wok take-out stuff.”
“Okay. It’s a deal.”
You took my arm then and I didn’t even care when your fingers brushed my side. Everything would be all right. I knew it would.
You wore your sunglasses into the restaurant, but didn’t care who saw your hands. You practiced using the chopsticks while we waited for our meal, spinning the chopsticks around until they fit comfortably in your new hand. You spent the rest of the time chasing the paper wrapper they came in around with the sticks, picking it up and dropping it again. The family at the table across from ours stared. The oldest boy whispered something about “having read about those people in the Times.” I squirmed uncomfortably, but you didn’t seem to notice any of it.
I ordered chicken fried rice, as I always do when I have a chance, and you ordered pretty much everything on the menu.
“So, what’s the occasion?” I asked.
“I don’t think I’m going to be able to eat regular food for that much longer. So, I wanted something nice, you know, for my last meal.” You looked away.
I nodded, waiting for the rest of the story, jaw clenched hard enough to hurt.
“I don’t even know how well I’m going to be able to keep all of this down. I’ve been throwing up a lot.”
“You went to see him again, didn’t you?”
You dropped rice in your lap, but tried to cover it with a laugh. “Who? The Doctor?”
“Yes, the Doctor.”
You said nothing.
“Why didn’t you tell me? I would have come with you.”
“I know, John. That’s why I didn’t tell you.” You rubbed your forehead with the heel of your hand. “Look, I saw how hard it was for you to go with me. I didn’t want to put you through that again.”
I just looked at you.
“John, please listen to me. I was trying to be…kind.”
“You lied to me. And, Char, you’re really not a very good liar.”
“I’m sorry. What else do you want me to say?”
“Don’t worry about it. Just bring me with you next time.”
“Okay. I didn’t realize it mattered so much to you.”
“Well, it does.” And I realized as I said it that it did matter me, that I needed, in some way I couldn’t quite understand, to be there while you changed.
“Okay. Next time you’ll be there. I promise.”
Neither of us spoke for a few moments, each of us left to our own thoughts and our own plates of food. The waiter wandered by to refill the water, stealing another glance at your hands and trying, hopefully unsuccessfully, to peer behind your glasses.
Eventually, I spoke to break the silence. “So, once you stop eating regular-people food, what are you planning on eating?”
“The Doctors have a special diet set up. They’ll be sending a crate of food supplies over on Wednesday.”
“What’s it like?”
“I don’t know. Tubes of something. It won’t start tasting good to me for a while though.”
“And they’ll just keep delivering to our house?”
“What do you mean?”
“Are they going to keep delivering to our house for the rest of your life?”
“Yeah. Sure.” You never were a very good liar.
I don’t know what we talked about for the rest of the night. Nothing important. Gossip and news. How cute the baby a few tables over from us was in her little pink bib. I always wanted us to have children one day.
We were just finishing up when the little boy walked over. He barely came up to your knee, but he looked so serious standing there, considering you. I bent over to talk to him, but he ignored me, staring at you wide-eyed.
Finally, after carefully considering his words, he spoke. “Are you a monster?”
I put a hand on his shoulder, ready to steer him away from you, but you just smiled. “Yes I am,” you said, wriggling your fingers right in front of him.
He took a look at them, looked back at you and let out a scream and started running across the restaurant until he could hide safely under his own table. His mother came over, to apologize I suppose, but she took one look at you and just kept walking. I pulled a handful of bills out of my wallet, hoping I wasn’t overpaying by too much, grabbed your elbow and headed for the door.
“Well, that didn’t go so badly, did it?” you said when we were back in the car.
“That was awful.”
“I expected worse. I hear that some clinics are starting to get protestors and I saw a preacher on TV talking about how it was a sin, changing, I mean.”
“So now we can’t go anywhere.”
“No, I can’t go anywhere. You can go wherever you want.”
I knew better than to say this was ridiculous, that you couldn’t live your whole life in the house, that maybe you should just go back to the way you used to be. But you’d just say that this is what you needed and we’d talk and I still wouldn’t understand, so I put the car in drive and headed home.
I took the new painting to Liz at the gallery after work the next day like you suggested. I wasn’t sure what she’d make of it, but she’d been displaying your paintings since she opened the gallery and besides, we’d been friends since college. It was a bit of a walk to get to the gallery, especially with the painting banging against my leg the whole way. I walked in, ringing the little bell over the door, and heard Liz’s familiar voice saying, “I’m terribly sorry, but I’m just closing up. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
“John, is that you?” She walked out from behind a display wall, grinning. She’d done something different with her hair, something nice.
“Um…I’ve got a new painting of Charlotte’s. I thought you might want to look at it.”
“Sure, bring it back to my desk. It’s really good to see you. It’s been too long.”
I nodded and unwrapped the canvas while she chewed on the back end of her pen. “Oh,” she said when I finished, “I see.”
She took the pen out of her mouth. “I’ve seen things like this before. Charlotte’s changing, isn’t she?”
“Yeah.” I looked away. “You see a lot of things like this?”
“Not that many. A friend of mine has paintings by a few artists in transition up at her gallery in L.A. She emailed me pictures.”
“Artists in transition?”
“Yeah, that’s what she calls it. A lot of collectors are interested in this kind of thing. It’s a bit of a fad, I think.” She paused. “No offense.”
“None taken. Does the painting look like anything to you?”
“No. What is it?”
“Well, the pink and yellow over here is supposed to be Charlotte, I think, and the orange and green blob is supposed to be me.”
She frowned. “You look much better in person.”
“I just wish I could see what she sees in this painting. She said something about being able to visualize it three dimensionally, like a Magic Eye. Oh, and contrasting colors, something about them, too.”
She brushed past me, waking her computer out of hibernation and opening up Firefox. “Why don’t I show you some of the photos Jean sent me, see what you think.”
The first might have been a pot or a cup or some kind of sculpture. It had sinuous protrusions extending from it in no pattern I could discern and in several places it seemed to turn itself inside out like a drawing by M.C. Escher. Dim colors flickered across its surface, purple-greens and pinky-yellows, orange mixing with blue.
“You can’t see in the still picture, but Jean says that as you walk around it, the colors seem to change. It’s something to do with the glaze. The artist claims she made it with her own spit.”
“Yeah. No one knows if she’s telling the truth. Would you like some coffee?”
“Sure, thanks. No milk—“
“And with enough sugar to give three people cavities, I remember.”
“I’ve got to be. Half of running this place is making people coffee.” She came back with the coffee cup wrapped in a napkin.
I remembered suddenly a moment years ago, back when all three of us were still in college, when Liz and I had been out for coffee after psychology class had finished up. We were going to study for the final, but while she was up getting the coffee, you spotted her bag and came over to sit down. You two were friends already after taking half of the course catalog’s painting classes together. You pulled up a seat and plopped a scone down between us and the moment I saw you that was it. I was transfixed. I think you were too. I know I couldn’t look away from you, couldn’t make the words line up in my head well enough to ask you a simple question, like what your name was. Liz had to introduce us. Then she handed me the coffee cup, wrapped in a napkin to protect my hand from the heat, just like that. And then she turned her chair around and straddled the back of it, just like she did that moment in the gallery, sitting with your painting between us. I’d forgotten how her smile made her face light up.
I coughed, feeling suddenly awkward. Liz leaned in. “You looked far away for a second. What’s on your mind?”
I shook my head. “Nothing. I was just thinking about how you seem to know about so many of the people making the change and I’ve never met anyone other than Charlotte.” I didn’t know why I was lying.
“You’re in banking, right?”
“Well, I don’t think there are too many of them in banking, or business fields at all really. Artists though, they’re allowed to be eccentric. It’s not so uncommon in the art scene. If you’d stayed in poetry you’d probably know tons.”
“But I didn’t.”
“Yeah, sure.” She chewed on her pen some more. I think she was wearing lipstick in a gold sort of color. Are they going to keep delivering to our house for the rest of your life? Yeah, sure. Your words, lying to me, coming out of Liz’s mouth. Suddenly I had to know. What were you keeping from me?
“Liz, can I ask you a question?”
She turned to face me more fully, noticing the seriousness of my voice. “Go ahead.”
So I told her everything. I didn’t start out meaning to. I just wanted to ask her the one question, but it all came pouring out. I talked until I didn’t have any more words left and when I was done I drank all the coffee in one gulp, trying to hide my face.
Liz got up and walked around the desk and put her hands on my shoulders. “Listen to me.” I turned to face her. “You don’t have to feel bad about telling me all of this. I don’t mind. I’m just glad you still trust me the way you used to.”
Liz considered her words and then began. “Have you ever wondered why you don’t see any of the ones who finished changing?”
I nodded, though I really hadn’t. “What about the Doctors?”
“I think they’re originals. I mean, they started out as whatever the Others are. And they’re all of the finished product you ever see. Charlotte didn’t tell you why, did she?”
I shook my head.
She paused, looking pained. “I’m really sorry. I don’t want to be the one to tell you.”
“Please, Liz, don’t do this to me. I need to know.”
She took a deep breath. “None of them stay after they’re finished changing. They all go to this place called the Compound. It’s somewhere in the Southwest and that’s pretty much all anyone knows about it.”
“All of them do this.”
“All of them.”
“So she’s leaving.”
While I spoke, the meaning of my words hit me. My face felt frozen. I could barely hear Liz’s voice over the roaring in my ears.
“Me, too. I should really go.”
“Maybe we should go for coffee sometime. You look like a man who still needs someone to talk to.”
“I’m just so busy with things with Charlotte right now, I really can’t.”
“Okay. Well, it was good to see you.”
I didn’t hear the nonsense words as I said them, thoughts moved too slowly up from my mouth to my brain. It was only after I had left that it occurred to me to be stunned by my heroic effort to speak politely to the woman who had told me you were leaving me forever.
I left without the painting, but I couldn’t go back to get it. I felt sick. I couldn’t believe that this was what you had lied to me about. This was too much, too big, too strange. The Doctor was lying to you. He’d told you that you could stay with me, even if you changed, but all along he was planning on stealing you from me.
I ran half the way to the Doctor’s office before I had to stop, panting and leaning against a stop sign for support, to catch my breath. I walked the rest of the way, a sharp pain pounding in my side, throbbing in time with my anger. I slammed the door open and walked past the receptionist without a word and pushed open the door to the back corridor. I remembered which room held the Doctor. I’d forgotten how thin he was, how dwarfed by the hulking metal of his desk. He looked up at me, panting and red-faced, and his expression changed not at all.
The calm monotone voice of the box on his desk spoke: “How are you today, Mr. Callahan?”
“Don’t give me that. You lied to my wife. You never told her she would have to leave me if she became one of you. And now you’re going to tell me it’s too late, aren’t you. You’re going to force her into the Compound—“
“Calm down, Mr. Callahan—“
“Don’t you dare.” I could barely speak through my gritted teeth. I jumped on the desk and grabbed him by the front of his white smock, prepared to shake the truth out of him. But he didn’t resist. He just hung limply in my hands as the box behind me began to speak again. Still calm.
“She knew, Mr. Callahan. She knew even before I told her. I am very sorry for your loss. But you need not worry. We will take good care of her. We promise she will be safe.”
All of the air went out of me. Things change, John. People change. Of course you knew. You wouldn’t have started this if you didn’t know how it ended. I walked to the train station, head down, and rode the train in silence. I stared out the window, but saw nothing the whole way home.
You were waiting for me when I got in, standing in the half-darkness of the doorway. You were so thin, the sharp bones of your face barely contained by your skin. I felt all my anger drain away looking at you.
“I’m sorry, John.”
“It’s okay. It’s all going to be okay.” I put my arms around you and kissed the top of your head where your beautiful hair had already started to fall out.
You pulled away from me slightly and looked up at me. “Please. You have to help me. I’m scared.”
I could see cracks running through your skin, radiating out from your eyes and mouth, wrapping around your arms and disappearing down the front of your shirt. Underneath I could see something slick and alien showing through.
“All the skin has to come off, but it hurts so much.”
I could see translucent strips of skin where they had been peeled up from your arms. Your skin everywhere was so pale that I could almost see something dark beneath, shiny and colorful as an oil slick. I gathered you into my arms and carried you upstairs and laid you out on the bed. I pulled off your clothes as slowly and carefully as I could, kissing you when you whimpered. You lay naked on the covers, a white, almost glowing, shape against the warm darkness of the sheets. Your nipples looked almost blue in the faint light, something cold and wet moved beneath the peeling lace of your skin.
I felt your hands moving softly over me, undoing the buttons of my shirt, boneless fingers sliding under the waste band of my pants. I gasped, pulling you to me. Even the gentlest caress left bruises and from the bruises radiated fresh tears in your skin. But your hands were insistent, pulling me down against you, your hips rising up to meet me. You clasped your arms around me and I could feel pieces of your skin tearing away against my back. You ripped open as I thrust into you, skin splitting and peeling away, revealing something alien underneath. I tried to pull away, afraid I was hurting you, but you pulled me closer and kissed me. The air smelled acrid, like burning fingernails. With each thrust your skin tore further and together we pulled you apart. Every place I touched you became a hole down through my familiar Charlotte into the alien flesh beneath. I tasted salt and only then realized I was crying.
You were smiling still, fingers eagerly tearing away strips of skin, coating us both in strands of sticky blue-gray. Soon all that was left of you was your face, webbed with cracks, but intact. Then I watched you peel it off, tearing the skin into two halves along the line of your nose. The pieces of your nose came up along with the skin and your ears tore off as you moved around to the back of your head. Lastly you peeled away your beautiful hair, the tiny bit of light from the edge of a shaded window catching all the shades of red and gold just for an instant before it, too, fell away.
I kissed every piece of your body that still had some of its old skin. I kissed your new skin—cold, rubbery, and sulfur-tasting. My eyes stung. Things change, John. People change. But you weren’t the only one who could change. I thought for a moment of Liz’s eyes when she asked me for coffee, looking at me the same way she had all those years ago on the day I met you. I shook my head. I loved you too much to lose you. That was it. Things change, John. People change. I could change too. I could be the man you needed.
The rest of the week was a nightmare of transformation. Your joints began to bend the opposite direction. Tiny tongues began to develop in rows on either side of your spine, growing until they became a halo of tentacles. Feelers like an ant’s budded from your forehead. A ruffle like a lace collar or the gills of a fish grew around your neck. A thousand more things, some only things that could be seen by someone as familiar with your body as I was and others so grotesque they made your body almost unrecognizable to me. You ate nothing but the sickly-pink smelling tubes the Doctor sent and blackish-purple strands of vomit spread outward from the bathroom sink. The house stank with the acrid smell of burning fingernails.
I didn’t eat. I didn’t sleep. I didn’t look away. I just sat and watched this final flurry of change and felt sick with love of you. You were moving away from me too fast. I could close my eyes to blink and open them to find you unrecognizable in front of me. The worst change happened last. I watched as strings of flesh began to dribble from your upper lip to your lower lip, melting the two together. You worked your jaw, suddenly scared, but your mouth began to seal up, lips and teeth vanishing under the onslaught of putty-like flesh. Soon there was only a blank space between your eyes and your jaw line and then your jaw twisted into something else.
I took you to the hospital for the last part of the change, the operation that would make you finally and completely Other. Brain surgery. They would make you part of their mind, they told me. You had no mouth because you no longer needed to speak. They were always a part of each other. You would never be alone again. They would all take care of you. Make you welcome. Know you better than I ever could. I barely listened. It didn’t matter what you were becoming anymore, just that I couldn’t lose you. I went back to the Doctor’s office and demanded they change me, too. Wherever you went, I would go too. He spoke to me for a while, mouthlessly, through his little metal box. I didn’t listen. I wasn’t going to lose you.
I signed the form next to all of the little x’s, my signature drooping and unfinished. The human nurse tied a blue band around my arm, cutting off circulation. The alcohol swab rasped against my skin. My whole arm felt alive, like a separate animal, prepared to run. I gritted my teeth and closed my eyes. Whatever I became it didn’t matter. I felt sick, something wet and pinkish rising in my throat. I was going to become one of Them. The Others. I imagined my flesh melting and twisting, my eyes turning into black stones and my hands into worms. I saw my skin peeling and my face falling away. I saw my mouth vanish into empty skin.
And when I felt the needle prick my skin and I screamed and pulled away. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t follow you any farther.
I guess I came back here to tell you that I love you. I don’t think that will ever change. And I guess I wanted to say I’m sorry for hurting you, for letting us hurt each other. But that’s all past. You’ve made sure of that. I’ll be waiting for you when you wake up. I’ll wave to you as you leave for the compound. But, I’m not going with you. You don’t have to tell me about it. I’m not going to ask you to write. I don’t want to know what happens to you there. I love you as much as ever, but you’re not the same woman you were when we married. And maybe I’m not the same man. I’m thinking of taking Liz up on her offer of coffee. I need a friend, someone easy to talk to. I’m not ready for anything more now, but maybe in a year, two years. You were right, you know.
If you still had a mouth, I know you’d be saying that now.